August 2004
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Day August 15, 2004

The failure of the liberal left to adapt to the media landscape

Regardless of our success in this election, 2004 is going to teach the left-liberal community a great deal. I started the year talking with a good friend about how difficult it is for liberals to “get their message across.” In my “open letter” to John Kerry I implicitly accepted the notion that the job of liberal communication is harder, because we have to explain why dominant positions aren’t, and shouldn’t be, correct. I’ve chafed all year at the difficulty of communicating the liberal message — and squirmed in my seat watching Kerry fail to do so, speech after speech.

As a long-time Chomsky reader, I’m not sure why it took me so long to grok the obvious — that liberals had utterly failed to adapt to the contemporary, sound-bite-driven media. I’d long understood the concentration of media ownership and its connections to powerful conservative think-tanks and financial backers. I’d long understood the lie behind claims of bias in the “liberal media” — no such media really exists outside Harpers, The Nation, and a few columnists in the New York Times and Washington Post.

But the liberal failure to adapt to contemporary media didn’t really click for me until this week, writing about O’Reilly and Krugman’s “exchange” on Russert, and in particular Broken Letters’ excellent post “The devil of the medium.” I highly recommend the latter to anyone interested in the issue.

Sure, George Lakoff is right — conservatives and liberals use language in different ways, stemming from different root assumptions about the world. And sure, Chomsky is right — in a society this large, with large concentrated media and a relatively uninvolved populace, interest groups do “manufacture consent” for their agendas.

But the liberal left does bear responsibility for its own failures. When it comes to the diversity of media forms, we suck. Most viewers believe that O’Reilly kicked Krugman’s butt because Krugman was boring and “weak.” Left-liberals have consistently failed to master the language and style needed to dominate the “two-minute story.” As Broken Letters notes, conservatives have dominated the quick-meme media until today. And as Lewis Lapham documents in the latest Harper’s, they’ve quite consciously spent decades and many millions (if not billions) creating the “Republican Noise Machine” in order to achieve that dominance.

As we learn our lessons in 2004 — again, whether we win the White House or not — I would suggest that coming to terms with our media failure is perhaps the important lesson. Our effort, and brainpower, and most importantly, our money, should be dedicated to communicating the left-liberal, new-New Deal vision in such a way that the population who have the most to gain from hearing our message, are able to hear it, understand it, and pass it on. Only in this way can we turn our anger and fervor into the “Emerging Democratic Majority” envisioned by Judis and Teixiera.